One of my first roommates at the Ashram was a middle-aged African-American devout
Baptist and meditation instructor from South Carolina. My other roommates, over time,
would include an Argentinean dancer, a Swiss homeopath, a Mexican secretary, an Australian mother of five, a young Bangladeshi computer programmer, a pediatrician from Maine and a Filipino accountant. Others would come and go, too, as devotees cycled in and out of their residencies.
This Ashram is not a place you can casually drop by and visit. First of all, it's not wildly accessible. It's located far away from Mumbai, on a dirt road in a rural river valley near a pretty and scrappy little village (composed of one street, one temple, a handful of shops and a population of cows who wander about freely, sometimes walking into the tailor's shop and lying down there). One evening I noticed a naked sixty-watt lightbulb hanging from a wire on a tree in the middle of town; this is the town's one street-lamp. The Ashram essentially creates the local economy, such as it is, and also stands as the town's pride. Outside the walls of the Ashram, it is all dust and poverty. Inside, it's all irrigated gardens, beds of flowers, hidden orchids, birdsong, mango trees, jackfruit trees, cashew trees, palm trees, magnolias, banyans. The buildings are nice, though not extravagant. There's a simple dining hall, cafeteria-style. There's a comprehensive library of spiritual writings from the world's religious traditions. There are a few temples for different types of gatherings. There are two meditation "caves"--dark and silent basements with comfortable cushions, open all day and night, to be used only for meditation practice. There's a covered outdoor pavilion, where Yoga classes are held in the morning, and there's a kind of a park with an oval walking path around it, where students can jog for exercise. I'm sleeping in a concrete dormitory.
During my stay at the Ashram, there were never more than a few hundred residents at any time. If the Guru herself had been in residence, those numbers would have swollen considerably, but she was never in India when I was there. I'd sort of expected that; she'd been spending a fair bit of time lately in America, but you never knew when she might show up anywhere by surprise. It's not considered essential to be in her literal presence in order to keep up your studies with her. There is, of course, the irreplaceable high of actually being around a living Yogic master, and I've experienced that before. But many longtime devotees agree that it can also sometimes be a distraction--if you're not careful, you can get all caught up in the celebrity buzz of excitement that surrounds the Guru and lose the focus of your true intention. Whereas, if you just go to one of her Ashrams and discipline yourself to keep to the austere schedule of practices, you will sometimes find that it is easier to communicate with your teacher from within these private meditations than to push your way through crowds of eager students and get a word in edgewise in person.
There are some long-term paid staffers at the Ashram, but most of the work here is done by the students themselves. Some of the local villagers also work here on salary. Other locals are devotees of the Guru and live here as students. One teenage Indian boy around the Ashram somehow really provoked my fascination. There was something about his (pardon the word, but . . .) aura that was so compelling to me. For one thing, he was incredibly skinny (though this is a fairly typical sight around here; if there's anything in this world skinnier than an Indian teenage boy, I'd be afraid to see it). He dressed the way the computer-interested boys in my junior high school used to dress for band concerts--dark trousers and an ironed white button-down shirt that was far too big for him, his thin, stemlike neck sticking out of the opening like a single daisy popping out of a giant flowerpot. His hair was always combed neatly with water. He wore an older man's belt wrapped almost twice around what had to be a sixteen-inch waist. He wore the same clothes every day. This was his only outfit, I realized. He must have been washing his shirt by hand every night and ironing it in the mornings.(Though this attention to polite dress is also typical around here; the Indian teenagers with their starched outfits quickly shamed me out of my wrinkled peasant dresses and put me into tidier, more modest clothes.) So what was it about this kid? Why was I so moved every time I saw his face--a face so drenched with luminescence it looked like he'd just come back from a long vacation in the Milky Way? I finally asked another Indian teenager who he was. She replied matter-of-factly: "This is the son of one of the local shopkeepers. His family is very poor. The Guru invited him to stay here. When he plays the drums, you can hear God's voice."
There is one temple in the Ashram that is open to the general public, where many Indians come throughout the day to pay tribute to a statue of the Siddha Yogi (or "perfected master") who established this lineage of teaching back in the 1920s and who is still
revered across India as a great saint. But the rest of the Ashram is for students only. It's not a hotel or a tourist location. It's more like a university. You must apply to come here, and in order to be accepted for a residency, you must show that you've been studying this Yoga seriously for a good long while. A minimum stay of one month is required. (I've decided to stay here for six weeks, and then to travel around India on my own, exploring other temples, Ashrams and devotional sites.)
The students here are about equally divided between Indians and Westerners (and the Westerners are about evenly divided between Americans and Europeans). Courses are taught in both Hindi and English. On your application, you must write an essay, gather references, and answer questions about your mental and physical health, about any possible history of drug or alcohol abuse and also about your financial stability. The Guru doesn't want people to use her Ashram as an escape from whatever bedlam they may have created in their real lives; this will not benefit anyone. She also has a general policy that if your family and loved ones for some reason deeply object to the idea of your following a Guru and living in an Ashram, then you shouldn't do it, it's not worth it. Just stay home in your normal life and be a good person. There's no reason to make a big dramatic production over this.
The level of this woman's practical sensibilities are always comforting to me.
To come here, then, you must demonstrate that you are also a sensible and practical human being. You must show that you can work because you'll be expected to contribute to the overall operation of the place with about five hours a day of seva, or "selfless service." The Ashram management also asks, if you have gone through a major emotional trauma in the last six months (divorce; death in the family) that you please postpone your visit to another time because chances are you won't be able to concentrate on your studies, and, if you have a meltdown of some sort, you'll only bring distraction to your fellow students. I just made the post-divorce cutoff myself. And when I think of the mental anguish I was going through right after I left my marriage, I have no doubt that I would have been a great drain on everyone at this Ashram had I come here at that moment. Far better to have rested first in Italy, gotten my strength and health back, and then showed up. Because I will need that strength now.
They want you to come here strong because Ashram life is rigorous. Not just physically, with days that begin at 3:00 AM and end at 9:00 PM, but also psychologically. You're going to be spending hours and hours a day in silent meditation and contemplation, with little distraction or relief from the apparatus of your own mind. You will be living in close quarters with strangers, in rural India. There are bugs and snakes and rodents. The weather can be extreme--sometimes torrents of rain for weeks on end, sometimes 100 degrees in the shade before breakfast. Things can get deeply real around here, very fast. My Guru always says that only one thing will happen when you come to the Ashram-- that you will discover who you really are. So if you're hovering on the brink of madness already, she'd really rather you didn't come at all. Because, frankly, nobody wants to have to carry you out of this place with a wooden spoon clenched between your teeth.